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More than meets eye in PN

The forthcoming contest for the PN deputy leadership is taking on a different hue to that anticipated up to a few days ago, though in some respects things are turning out as predicted. It will not, I think, anticipate the leadership contest which will take place some time after the coming general election, whichever way it goes. Only two of the potential candidates for the deputy leadership are contesting, Tonio Fenech and Simon Busuttil.

The stakes have changed with the manner of Fenech’s endorsement
- Lino Spiteri

Other well-positioned potential candidates – like Mario de Marco, Chris Said, Jason Azzopardi and Beppe Fenech Adami – are deliberately staying out of the coming contest. That should not be taken as a sign that they will not be interested in the leadership, when Lawrence Gonzi calls it a day. It is more a question of keeping the powder dry at this stage of the game. Meaning that whoever is elected deputy leader will not have a clear last lap when Gonzi finally decides to call it a day.

As always, the outcome will depend on events, some of which can be anticipated under given scenarios. For instance…

The winner between Fenech and Busuttil will replace the GonziPN brand with a tandem with the present leader. (By the way it is ridiculous to assume, as some are doing, that Gonzi will make way for the new deputy leader before the general election because he is now more of a liability than an asset. To assume that would be to ignore Gonzi’s obvious burning ambition to be a two-times winner.)

That brand will be tested in the fire of the general election. If the PN wins it, the deputy leader will have a strong chance of succeeding Gonzi. If the PN is defeated and the deputy leader becomes a loser, this will alert PN councillors to the possibility that they would be better off with one of the four potential candidates who are staying out this time round.

This scenario will play out whoever wins the deputy leadership. Which raises the obvious question – which of the two contestants is the most likely to succeed? Busuttil will start off as favourite. There is little doubt, though it is being denied, that Gonzi made him perceived to be his anointed, to be backed by the party machine.

That machine is now striving to seem clean of the indicated bias whereby a contestant to Busuttil would be just a stalking horse, giving the semblance of competition. Tonio Fenech’s candidature has forced that shift. He was a strong possibility before Busuttil spun an aura around himself, but ran into a few personal incidents a couple of years ago which shoved him back in popularity terms.

Time has now healed. His worth is seen more objectively. And, already, he is promoting it in a much more subtle manner than Busuttil. Within a couple of days Fenech has avoided giving the Busuttil inflated impression that he is the gallant knight trotting in at the PN’s hour of need. Rather, Fenech is gently but carefully stressing that Gonzi placed him at the top, managing the government’s financial and economic policies, for eight years or so.

The man is positioning himself on the platform that will have a large say in deciding the outcome of the general election. If Busuttil did well as an MEP candidate and made his mark abroad, Fenech did better by being at the heart of the domestic action.

He is still there, preparing the 2013 budget which will now target not just the country but also the 900 Nationalist councillors who will elect the deputy leader. Expect, therefore, some bonanza. Among other things the Finance Minister will resuscitate the promise to reduce the tax burden for those earning up to €60,000 annually. Labour will deride that as pure electioneering. The Minister will let it sink into the consciousness of the PN councillors as an important general election card.

The stakes have also changed with the manner of Fenech’s endorsement as a candidate for the number two spot. He is backed by most of the Cabinet. Wily Busuttil has shot himself in the foot by mobilising discontented Nationalists to seek relief from ministers and parliamentary secretaries who had been unable to bail them out. Fenech’s endorsers have their own lobby within the councillors’ catchment area and they will try to direct that in his favour.

A contest between friends? On the face of it, yes. But in such circumstances friendship does not go a long way in politics.

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